‘You’re leaving the city?’ Rolland asked.
‘We’re leaving the city,’ Stanton said. ‘I told you, I had a plan.’
‘What? Can—can you even do that? Take me out of the city?’
Stanton frowned. ‘I don’t see why not, you’re my employee, my adviser. You go where I go, and I’m leaving the city.’
‘You’re a travelling trader?’
‘Where do you think I got this timepiece?’ Stanton held up the timepiece that hung around his neck. ‘We’re going to a far-off land,’ he said in a theatrical voice. ‘Well, it’s actually not that far by foreigners’ standards, but for us, it’s far.’ Stanton was rummaging around in his room, packing things into a bag. ‘Won’t be long until people realise we’re going to have to trade out for food, what with the lack of rain and rising population. So we’re going to get out there first. We’ll make a deal with some foreign farmers and bring back so much grain that people will have to trade with us.’ He stopped packing and turned to Rolland, putting his hands on Rolland’s shoulders. ‘And you, my friend, you’re going to become a very rich adviser. We’ll get you a golden hand.’
Rolland couldn’t help but smile back at Stanton. Leave the city? Go to a foreign land? He had been dreaming about doing that since he was a child, and now it could become a reality. But there were things nagging in his head.
‘What are you going to offer them to trade? How are you going to secure a contract with these foreigners?’
Stanton waved his hands in dismissal, turning back to his packing. ‘I told you, I have a plan.’ He looked down at his clothes, poking fingers in the holes of the fabric. ‘I’ll need new clothes.’ He glanced back at Rolland in his purple robes. ‘And so will you.’
‘I’m not allowed to wear anything else.’
‘Well, we’ll have to make an exception. Can’t go walking around in that, they’ll think you’re some kind of priest.’
‘What’s a priest?’
‘Never mind. You should get packing, too. I’ve hired a couple of bodyguards, they’ll be meeting us at the inner city’s south gate at ten.’
‘I’ve nothing to pack—we’re leaving today?’
‘Well yes, why did you think I was packing?’ Stanton smiled, slamming his large luggage bag closed. ‘We’ll pick up some clothes as we pass through the market. I got the bodyguards to pack the food. There aren’t many people out there willing to leave the city just to guard a travelling merchant, so these two are a little, well, rough around the edges.’ He smiled. ‘I’m sure we’ll all get along.’
They passed through the market quickly. The clothes Stanton bought weren’t terribly fine, but they lacked holes. Rolland hid in an alleyway and changed into the new clothes Stanton had bought him. He had been wearing robes for so long it felt strange wearing anything else. Stanton had given him a long draping cloak with large pockets to hide his hands. People wouldn’t know him, not from his face. No one looked at lighttouched after all. As long as he hid his tattooed hand and residual limb in his pockets, he would pass as just an ordinary young man. Stanton had said it would go smoother if he turned up at the gates not looking lighttouched. Rolland was his adviser, where Stanton went Rolland followed. But if he was allowed to leave the city, why put on this ruse?
It was the strangest thing, walking down the city streets beside Stanton with his head held high. He could feel the breeze on the back of his neck where there would usually be a hood. The only time he’d felt this free in the last five years was when he was at the top of the tower, staring down on everyone as if they were ants, free to show his face because no one could see him all the way up there. They always kept the tower door locked, so he would have to climb the walls outside his window to make it up there. Something now impossible for him without two good hands.
Stanton pointed out two people who stood a little ways from the inner city’s south gate. They didn’t look as Rolland had expected. Rolland was expecting two burly, rough looking men. One of them was average height, average weight, average in every way Rolland could think of. He looked just like anyone else on the street, though a little older, as his hair was beginning to grey. He wore a weather beaten cloak, a cloak that could have easily concealed a sword. The other was a bit shorter, and a woman. She wore clothes akin to the inner guard and had a sword strapped to her hip for all to see. She stood like a guard, too. Rolland gathered she used to be one. Or had at least gone through the training. Had Stanton made him change out of his robes so as not to spook the bodyguards? He doubted they would fancy the idea of travelling with a Reader. Rolland was surprised to see they had a donkey with them for carrying the packs.
The two bodyguards nodded at Stanton in greeting. Stanton introduced the average looking man as Koel, and the likely former guard as Jenna. Rolland was relieved at the casual introduction. He’d had to stop himself from revealing his hands in a formal greeting. Stanton threw his bag over the donkey and latched it fast. Rolland had no bags, but Stanton assured Rolland that the bodyguards had packed one for him.
‘Alright.’ Stanton rubbed his hands together. ‘Let’s not dawdle, it’s a long walk to Cheruga.’ They set off down the street and out of the gate.
‘Cheruga?’ Rolland asked.
‘It’s a small city on the outskirts of Sloa’tan,’ Koel said. ‘Well, it’s small by Sloa’tan standards.’
‘The Sloa’tan Kingdom? You’ve been there before?’
‘None of us have,’ Stanton said. ‘Even us travelling merchants don’t like to travel that far. There are closer towns.’
‘How long will it take?’
‘A couple of months,’ Koel grunted.
‘Months!?’ Rolland had seen old maps before, of the Sloa’tan Kingdom, the Chtean Empire… but how could something be so far away as to take months to walk there?
‘You got somewhere to be?’ Jenna smirked.
‘No, just—that’s a lot of walking.’
‘Why are you bringing this kid along, anyway?’ Koel asked.
‘He goes where I go,’ Stanton said.
It was a few more hours until they made it to the outer gate of the Tall Wall. There were four large gates in Ashrennon. Each gate was like the point of a compass, pointing directly north, south, east, or west. Rolland craned his head staring up at the Tall Wall. It seemed to stretch on for miles. It was definitely taller than the tallest tower in the city.
The outer guard looked different to the inner guard. They wore armour, for one. It wasn’t heavy plated armour like Rolland had seen in old books and the paintings at the palace. They wore chain mail hauberks and metal skull cap helmets. Some had shields strapped to their arms with swords on their hips, whilst others carried spears. He didn’t know much about the outer guard, he had always wanted to join the inner guard when he was younger. He knew they had a different style of fighting. Where the inner guard learnt to fight their battles individually, the outer guard learnt to fight in a group. Though as far as Rolland knew, no one ever came to Ashrennon with ill will. The outer guards would likely never get a chance to use their skills in actual combat. Ashrennon had been in peace for centuries, and Rolland could see it in the way the outer guards walked. They appeared less disciplined, more casual, than their counterparts in the city. He supposed the inner guards at least had criminals to deal with.
One of the guards at the gate approached their little group. Stanton walked up first, and it seemed as if they knew each other. The guard asked him for some papers, which Stanton pulled out of his coat pocket, all folded together. Rolland noticed something else in the exchange. A glint of silver passed from Stanton’s hand to the guard’s. The guard smiled and nodded at Stanton and their party was waved through. Was that bribe because of Rolland?
The first day of travel had not been too bad, but Rolland was beginning to hate walking. His feet were more sore than they’d ever been. His favourite time was the evening. Not the sleeping part. He was getting used to sleeping on the ground, but he had bigger problems than that. He was beginning to dream again. In all the rush and confusion he’d forgotten to pack his root tea, the tea that enabled him not to dream. He would have only had enough for a few weeks, but it would have been better than this. Walking all day and barely sleeping was beginning to take its toll.
Walking for days on end wasn’t the adventure he’d imagined. He could only hope it would all be worth it in the end.
The evenings were his only respite.
They were walking through a forest path now. The path was an old one, mostly overgrown. The trees taller than anything Rolland had seen in Ashrennon. Koel would head off when they made camp to hunt. Sometimes bringing back strange animals Rolland had never seen inside the Tall Wall. Jenna and Stanton would gather the firewood. Rolland would help, bundling the firewood in crook of his left arm, trying to carry just as much as the others. Koel and Jenna were wary of him. When they had seen his residual limb and fully tattooed right hand on the first night, Koel had almost walked back to the city. He hadn’t talked to Rolland for a full week. He’d ranted at Stanton.
‘How’s he supposed to defend himself?’ Koel had said. ‘There are bandits closer to Sloa’tan, you know. This kid has one hand and isn’t even allowed to touch a blade! If we get attacked, he’ll be cut down like he’s nothing.’
‘That’s what I have bodyguards for!’ Stanton had replied in a rage. It was the first time Rolland had seen him angry. ‘Besides, that boy killed two thugs, why you think the king took away his hand? He’ll be fine in a fight.’
Koel had slowly started to talk to Rolland again, and as the weeks went by, there was less coldness in his voice. Jenna had been surprised, but warmed up quicker than Koel. She didn’t seem to mind as much. She also seemed familiar to Rolland somehow. Though he was having trouble figuring out why.
The fire crackled at Rolland’s back. The light was dimming, the sun would be gone in another half an hour. Koel had taken his bow and walked off into the forest again. Some days he didn’t bring anything back. He probably just liked the time alone out there. That was something Rolland missed. Time alone. He could no longer run off to the library and hide away in a corner. He’d travelled with the same three people for the last two months, every one of them beginning to smell. They took advantage of streams whenever they found them, but mostly they could not bathe.
‘Stanton says we’re two weeks from the nearest village,’ Jenna said, sitting beside Rolland. They sat in silence for a long moment, staring off into the trees. ‘What’s it like?’ she asked.
‘What’s what like?’
‘Being lighttouched. Living in the academy. Seeing what you see.’
‘It’s better than sore feet.’
Jenna smiled. ‘I suppose it would be.’ She sighed and kicked off her boots. She stretched her legs out on the ground. ‘Do you know a girl named Jesrae?’
‘I know her.’ Rolland finally realised why Jenna was so familiar. ‘She’s your sister?’
‘She is. Or, she was. I haven’t seen her in almost five years.’
‘You’re—you’re a nobleman’s daughter, like her? What are you doing out here?’
‘I needed a break from my family. Nobility’s not all it’s cracked up to be, especially if you have parents like mine. They didn’t want me to become a guard. I had to fight every inch of ground when I was young. “You’re a lady, Jeanna, ladies do not learn to fight, and they certainly do not wield swords”’ She scoffed. ‘That must sound so selfish to you. You were pulled away from your family when you were eleven, and here I am complaining.’
The sun was creeping away, darkening the trees.
‘It’s not selfish,’ Rolland said. ‘What I’ve been through doesn’t make what you’ve been through any better.’
‘I see you tossing and turning each night. I remember Jesrae doing that. She told me about the horrible dreams she had, before she left. Before she was taken away.’
‘There’s a tea they give us, at the academy. It stops us from dreaming. I couldn’t bring any on the road.’ He could have brought some, though he had forgotten. It was only a small lie.
There was a crunching of leaves and Koel appeared from behind the trees. He had a deer slung over his shoulders and a grin on his face.
Koel built a spit and cooked the deer over the fire. They came to sit in a circle as the sun fell away and a chill breeze blew in from the south.
‘How’d you get so good at hunting?’ Rolland asked.
Koel turned over the meat, ready to serve. He pulled a knife from his belt, cutting slices for the four of them. The greying bodyguard was still quiet with Rolland, barely looking his way, and never talking first. Though he seemed a quiet man by nature. He didn’t talk much with the others either.
‘Practice.’ Koel dropped a piece of meat into a metal bowl and passed it to Stanton.
‘There’s no hunting in Ashrennon. I imagine it’s a hard skill to practice within the Tall Wall.’
‘Ashrennon’s my home, but I try to spend more time out here than in there. The wall around the city never made me feel safe, just trapped.’ Koel handed Rolland a portion, careful not to look into his eyes. ‘I imagine you know a thing or two about being trapped.’
It was the most words Rolland had got out of him since the bodyguards had found out he was lighttouched.
‘I spent a good part of my life stuck in the academy, staring out at the Tall Wall.’ Rolland took a bite of the deer, savouring it. They didn’t have sauce out here, nothing to flavour the meat with, but the deer was flavourful enough. Besides, Rolland was used to bland food. ‘I did feel trapped in there.’ He glanced at Jenna. She was studying him, and didn’t shy away from their momentary eye contact. He stared back at the crackling fire. ‘Ever since they took me from my parents I’ve felt trapped. But it’s a damn sight better than the king’s dungeon. That I found out the hard way.’ Rolland smirked, raising his left arm and showing the residual limb. ‘The academy didn’t seem so bad after that.’
The next two weeks seemed to slow. They were getting closer and closer to the nearest town, though Cheruga was still far away. Rolland was eager to see the town, and his anticipation made the days drag. He had been looking for signs of what life was like outside of Ashrennon for years. This would finally be his chance to see it up close. He knew what he had learnt as a child could not be right. It seemed to be the official line, for centuries, that people outside Ashrennon, outside the wall, were barbarians. He may not have seen this town yet, but he knew it simply wasn’t true. How could they not have culture if they had Kingdoms? Empires?
He had wondered long and hard at why leaving the city was frowned upon. Why foreign trade was discouraged. People bought what merchants brought back, and if the harvest was shortening every year, they would be forced to trade with outsiders.
It was either that or starve.
Todd Herzman writes fantasy, science fiction, and anything else that catches his fancy. He has a Bachelor of Writing degree from the University of Canberra, and his debut novel, A Dark Inheritance, is a SPFBO 6 Semi-Finalist and is available on Amazon.
If you'd like to read his free prequel to A Dark Inheritance, The Seeker and the Sword, you can grab it by going to his website and signing up to his author newsletter.
He's also the writer of the web serial Ashrennon.